When done right, concept albums can represent the finest content that the music industry has to offer, tying together a set of songs into one continuous thematic experience that manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is an evolution of the concept album, weaving the tracks of a connected musical opus through a playable puzzle game, which results in an artistic product that’s a joy to experience. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP may be on the short side, and its ‘gameplay’ is certainly an acquired taste, but those who put in the effort to thoughtfully engage with what this game has to offer will find something truly special.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP possesses a mindful awareness of its unique aesthetic, even going so far as giving prescriptive suggestions for the best way to experience it. As the game puts it, a relaxed, curious individual is more likely to have a pleasant experience here, and in this, we couldn’t agree more. Part point-and-click adventure, part puzzle game, and part concept album, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP pulls from a number of sources for its inspiration, combining all these elements in ways that don’t always fully pay off, but almost always come off as interesting.
The four-chapter story follows a nameless “Scythian” heroine who comes to a small mountain town in search of the fabled Megatome, a magical book housed in a mysterious ancient temple. After solving the temple’s secrets and acquiring the tome, the nameless hero triggers dark events that must be undone by finding the three pieces of cosmic geometry called the Trifo- ahem, “Trigon”. Though the total campaign can be beaten in a span of about five to eight hours, it provides many memorable and very weird moments.
For one thing, the entirety of the story is communicated through second person interactions, meaning that events are being spoken of in the present as if they had happened in the past. It’s a weird tense that’s not often used in typical English in general, so there’s a slight period of adjustment in reading it, but this way of storytelling helps to foster the continually building atmosphere and mystery surrounding the Scythian’s quest. Luckily, the story rarely takes itself too seriously, going for an often dry and deadpan sense of humour that keeps things just lighthearted enough to be interesting. For example, after triggering the apocalypse, the “Logfella” that guided you to the temple says that he’s pretty “bummed out”.
It must be said that the story isn’t particularly gripping purely from a plot standpoint – this is a relatively rote story of a lone hero defeating a dark power – but what’s so enrapturing about it all is the sense of weirdness that beckons you to keep playing. You want to know what happens next not so much because you care what happens to the characters, but because you want to see how the game chooses to convey the next story beat to you. If you’re the kind of person that prefers to engage with media a bit more than the average individual, really analyzing the disparate parts of something to get at the heart of the meaning, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP has obscure symbolism and deep philosophy in spades, such as how it approaches the divide between dreams and reality.
Though the game world is only comprised of a few dozen screens at most, you’ll come to understand it better as you guide the Scythian through it in each chapter and tackle new challenges that turn things on their head. You interact with the world through ‘clicking’ on things in the environment (whether by an on-screen cursor or the touchscreen), picking up on subtle clues that indicate solutions to esoteric puzzles. Generally speaking, these puzzles feel more complex than those you’ll typically find in another game (one even requires repeatedly playing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP at different stages in the real-world lunar cycle) and you’re rarely given hints about how to solve them. Even so, enough poking and prodding can eventually lead to that all important ‘Aha!’ moment, leading to an immense sense of satisfaction that few other game puzzles can create.
Another, smaller component of the gameplay experience is found in a simplistic combat interface that pops up during the handful of times that you have an enemy encounter. These battles are all about timing; you can’t move the Scythian at all, only press the ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ buttons when appropriate. Indeed, these fights are less of an actual combat system than they are quick time events, but they feel a bit more involved than that. For example, one memorable boss encounter is a multi-stage, rhythmic dance in which the slowly building music matches up with the boss’s attacks, as the boss changes up patterns, the music grows more intense and layers in more instruments.
Music is a continuous, driving presence in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, arguably functioning as the main focus of the whole game. During key plot moments, such as when the Scythian ascends the mountain for the first time or battles the Trigon, the music swells and flexes, providing a more involved and interactive soundtrack than a typical game provides. At times, it even feels like the actual game elements are more of a supplementary means of providing deeper appreciation for the music, acting as a sort of visualizer for the beats. It goes without saying that this is certainly a game you’ll want to be experiencing with earphones, aided by the immersive usage of 3D sound, ideally in a quiet environment where you can focus. The soundtrack dabbles in a variety of music genres, but the tracks generally seem to return to an atmospheric kind of synthwave; there’s a very nostalgic vibe to this music that doesn’t sound like chiptune, but most certainly has '80s influences.
As for its visuals, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP goes for a 16-bit aesthetic that’s heavy on the detail, but feels a little bit disappointing given the ambition of the game's other elements. Environments like the rainbow entrance to the mountain temple are suitably well-drawn and small details like the reflection of the characters on the still surface of a pond are welcome, but the colour palette comes off as being a bit monochromatic and bland. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP doesn’t look bad by any means, but given how much thought was put into things like puzzle design and music composition, it feels like the graphics were a bit of an afterthought.
Another disappointing aspect is the length; Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a wonderful experience, but it feels like it ends just when things are starting to get interesting. It may be that this is a nicely self-contained story, but so many questions are left unanswered that it feels like the whole campaign is just the first act of a much bigger story. It feels unsatisfying that the story ends where it does, and given that this is the sort of game with low replay value, we’d advise a fair bit of caution before taking the plunge; ten bucks isn’t much to ask, but it’s still money that could go towards more entertaining games on the eShop.
There isn’t any other game on the eShop quite like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, which is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, this offers up a well-paced, thought-provoking, and artistic experience that you won’t soon forget, but it’s also short and isn’t always ‘fun’ in the traditional way that games usually are. If you’ve got some gold coins to burn or want a game that’s a bit more mentally engaging than what you’d usually find on the eShop, we’d give Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP a recommendation. Otherwise, you should probably wait for a sale or just steer clear.